Book is testament to talent and friendship and loss

Songwriter Debra Alt, left is shown with her friend, photographer Monica Baer. Baer lost her battle with breast cancer in July.
Submitted photo Songwriter Debra Alt, left is shown with her friend, photographer Monica Baer. Baer lost her battle with breast cancer in July.

When you’re having a conversation with Debra Lynn Alt, words just flow from the Lyme singer-songwriter’s lips — extraordinary insights and reflections on life, on love, on the big picture stuff. It’s as if she’d been rehearsing them, as though they were the carefully constructed lyrics of a new song.

But they’re not. It’s just how Deb Alt is: an intensely thoughtful and articulate woman committed to doing her part to leave the world a little brighter than she found it. Alt’s aim is not only to raise social consciousness and funds for charities close to her heart, but to share her joy of music in keeping with her moniker: “Songs for Causes and Just-because’s.”

“My peak experience is when I have expressed in words something meaningful and uplifting that’s carried with music,” Alt said. “I can’t imagine anything more beautiful and powerful.”

Alt grew up in New York City. Mostly self taught, she began playing music at the age of 10 when her school gave students a choice of instruments: a recorder for free or a guitar for $10. Her parents agreed to the guitar and she promptly learned to sing and strum. At 20, Alt bought a used piano on a whim and figured out how to play that, too.

A self-described baby boomer, Alt was strongly influenced by the music of her childhood.

“I was so moved by political songs growing up in the ’60s and music was such a force for change — it was the way our culture shifted and we redefined ourselves.

“Music can be narcissistic but really personal,” she observed. “When you’re singing from your heart, your joy, your pain, your inspiration, it becomes universal. What people long to feel is connection, ultimately.”

Alt has performed in country and rock bands in coffeehouses and clubs throughout the New York metropolitan area. Her claim to fame was playing in the Rolling Stone Magazine house band in the late 1970s.

She produced her first CD of mostly original songs titled “A Spirited Mother” after moving with her young daughter to the Connecticut shoreline in 2003. Her second CD, “In Broad Daylight,” was released in 2008.

A ‘magical’ collaboration

Alt recently collaborated on a book with her friend Monica Baer, who died of breast cancer in July. Baer’s photographs illustrate the lyrics to “Each Moment We’re Alive,” a song that Baer — as chairwoman for her town’s Fifth Annual American Cancer Relay for Life — asked Alt to write and perform. The song (on Alt’s second CD) became both the impetus for the book, as well as its title.

Baer was Alt’s daughter’s Hebrew school teacher, which is what brought the women together initially.

Alt was disappointed when she learned that Baer, an “amazing teacher” was retiring to become a wildlife photographer, but realized, “Monica’s passion for photography was something she so wanted to actualize.”

“She was the kind of person who would say as soon as she met you, ‘I’m a breast cancer survivor and a wildlife photographer,’ Alt noted. “That’s what really drew me to her. I was always fascinated by people who had overcome formidable obstacles and then achieved glorious things.”

Alt added that Baer was also deeply affected by her mother’s experience as a Holocaust survivor.

“It’s one of the ultimate wounds of the world that she cared so deeply about healing through her photography, our book, my songs, etc.”

Alt said she was trying to push the book along because Baer’s health was declining and she wanted to be able to leave a legacy of her friend’s photographs.

“We decided to use the lyrics to illustrate the photos, which took months.”

The women chose 36 photos — a number referred to as a double Chai in Hebrew that represents life, the divine, good energy, Alt explains.

This was no easy feat as, “Monica had millions (of photographs), no exaggeration; she was so prolific. She had a knack for being in the moment and capturing it,” Alt said.

They then chose the lyrics to go with each photo.

“It felt magical. It all fit, like some grace, every force in the universe making this happen,” Alt said.

Alt went the self-publishing route, which wasn’t inexpensive. She wanted to get something published before Monica died, stressing that the printing quality is very high and 10 percent of each book sold goes to breast cancer research.

“I’m very serious about getting a publisher so that it can eventually be in hardcover and sold for less,” she said.

‘Art is healing’

Alt’s newest artistic endeavor is live theater. After she performed last spring in a shoreline production of “The Mike Morrison Story” by Burt Saxon, about a boomer looking back on the music of his generation, Saxon was inspired to write a new play starring Alt, titled “My Sister’s Still a Hippy.”

“My character is a metaphor for folk singers being the truth-sayers of our generation,” Alt said. “It will have music that people recognize and love to sing along with, and is designed to be an entertaining and uplifting vehicle for my music and charitable efforts.”

As deeply as she misses her friend, Alt is determined to keep alive Baer’s optimistic spirit and determination to make every moment count, even in the face of overwhelming difficulties.

“The indescribable thing about art is that it lifts you and inspires you and can even transform or shift consciousness,” Alt said. “And there’s the healing piece. Art is definitely healing.”

“Each Moment We’re Alive: A Photographic and Musical Journey” is $44.95, and includes a CD of the song. The book is available at http://www.blurb.com/books/3229425 and www.debrasong.com

 

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